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New study explores how to help teens lose weight

Teens who want to lose weight have to keep their priorities straight, and that, as a new study on adolescent obesity illustrates, takes brain power.

Published earlier this month in the journal Obesity (paywall), the study found that teens who had lost weight and kept it off — when faced with the temptation to splurge on high-calorie foods — showed increased activity in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that houses the process of choosing between competing interests. This boosted brain activity was not observed in overweight teens or teens who had always maintained a healthy weight.

Co-authors Chad Jensen and C. Brock Kirwan, both of Brigham Young University, told BYU News that their research highlights one rarely discussed way young people can be helped in their effort to reach a healthy weight: brain games.

“The promising piece is that it appears we can help people to learn how to make better choices about food,” said Jensen to BYU News.

“You can improve executive control,” or the way the brain prioritizes desires, Kirwan added. “Successful programs involve repeated practice and ramping up the challenges to executive control.”

In other words, overweight teens can be trained to prioritize their desire to shed pounds over their craving for ice cream or some other treat. BYU News listed activities like computerized training, games and yoga, designed with an emphasis on delayed rewards, as potential ways to put the new research into action.

The new research comes at a moment when the U.S. obesity rate is on the rise, including among teenagers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one-third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese in 2012.

“The percentage of adolescents aged 12 to 19 years who were obese increased from 5 percent to nearly 21 percent” between 1980 and 2012, the CDC reported.

Jensen and Kirwan's study is the first to explore the association between viewing food and increased brain activity in the prefrontal cortex. The 34 teen participants were asked to fast for four hours before entering an MRI scanner and looking at images of foods like pancakes, burgers and pizzas.

The idea, however, that people can arm themselves with mental strategies to resist temptation is widely accepted. As Deseret News National reported in January, some fitness apps can help dieters train their brains to stay on track with a strict diet.

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